“Everyone suffers,” says Frances, the dim protagonist of Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends. True, but does anyone suffer as much as Rooney’s female characters? In recent years, popular culture has seen a theme emerge that has its roots in classic literature, but is as far removed from those early characters as possible. That’s “the abandoned woman”: a troubled young woman who can’t help but wonder why anyone would do anything.
The waif in literature has been around much longer than Frances, but 170 years ago she had substance. In Wuthering Heights it was Cathy, wandering the moors with Heathcliff, as wild and violent as the nature around her. Emily Brontë’s sister, Charlotte, wrote a “wasted girl” in the form of Jane Eyre, quieter and more shy than Cathy, but just as radical in her independent thinking. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles sought to fight for her own life and the lives of others, despite enduring unfathomable hardship.
Charles Dickens was also good with “dropouts,” the most obvious being Oliver Twist, Jo, the crossroads sweeper in Bleak Houseand Pip in Great Expectations. I always think of Estella, the orphan raised by Miss Havisham to return nothing but coldness to the desperate attentions of men, as the best example. In the sixties, thelook “wasted woman” was applied to models like Twiggy and Edie Sedgwick (Sedgwick’s tortured personal life makes the “wasted woman” moniker especially apt), along with actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron. In movies like Gigi, Caron emulated the headstrong and forceful character of her predecessors, as did Hepburn as the eccentric Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. During the 1980s and 1990s, the abandoned woman resurfaced in Winona Ryder (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Little Women Y girl, interrupted).
In recent years, however, “the abandoned woman” has returned to pop culture with a new, more troubling, and ultimately insufferable identity. While the new incarnations may not technically be orphans, her parents are estranged, separated, or absent, thus almost falling under the original definition of “abandoned person.” The similarities stop there. “The abandoned woman” in contemporary film, television, and literature is a barrel of contradictory tropes: she is “painfully skinny” but still attractive; she insists that she is boring, but she still manages to fascinate those around her; she is normal but extraordinary (for no clear reason); smart without meaning to (but never a geeky, as much as she pretends to be); socially awkward but the center of attention; monotonous but attractive; sexless but sexy; virginal but seductive.
Notable examples include Bella Swan by twilightTessa Young of despues deAnastasia Steele by Fifty Shades of GrayMarianne Sheridan by Normal People and Frances from Conversations with Friends. Despite their perception of themselves as marginalized, they are frequently among the most privileged social groups: white, thin, educated, wealthy (or supported by someone who has wealth), cis, and (mostly) straight. She is the introverted counterpoint to “the cool woman”: the girl who drinks beer and eats pizza from How I Met Your Mother Y There’s Something About Mary. “The Great Woman” was skewered on the thriller of gone girl from Gillian Flynn from 2012, but the characters of Rooney and company lean directly towards the most problematic traits of “the abandoned woman.”
The level of martyrdom of Rooney’s main female characters has been described as “gratuitous”. In fact, across the board, “wasted women” are desperate to convince you and your love interests of their utter worthlessness. They constantly compare themselves negatively to other characters: Frances’s friend Bobbi has “better posture” than her and a “memorably beautiful” face. “There’s no point in you loving me,” Bella (Kristin Stewart) insists to her vampire boyfriend, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), in the film adaptation of Twilight: New Moon. “I am nothing…human…nothing.” In a later scene, she begs a laughing Aro (Michael Sheen) to kill her instead of Edward, convinced that his life is worth more. “I don’t think I’d fit in here,” Dakota Johnson, regularly ranked among the world’s sexiest women, whispers to Christian Gray (Jamie Dornan), when he offers her an internship at her multimillion-dollar company. “Look at me”.
For Marianne, in Rooney’s second novel, normal people, her life doesn’t even begin until Connell falls in love with her: “She has never believed herself fit to be loved by anyone. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life. Frances says something similar in Conversations with Friends: “Perhaps seeing him witness how much others approved of me, without taking any of the risks necessary to earn Nick’s personal approval, made me feel able to speak to him again… as if there was nothing in me that was inferior.”
The term “abandoned” originally referred to a person cut off from their family environment due to hardship or loss. Most of the time they were orphaned children, without a home or friends. In the literature of the Brontë, Dickens or Hardy, that fight was what motivated them. This is repeated for “wasted women” in contemporary literature but, unlike their ancestors, they rarely need anything financially. Bella’s vampire in-laws have a lot of money; Anna marries a billionaire; Marianne’s family is rich; Frances’s father gives her money. By removing any financial concerns, perhaps due to misplaced fears that this would bore their readers, the authors allow their characters to engage in their romantic escapades without worrying about who will pay for dinner. Not that they’re planning to eat anything, of course.
The male love interests of “the waifs” are obsessed with what they eat and drink. “Have you been drinking?” Christian demands to know when Anna calls him from a club. Later: “You should eat something.” In Flock, the book written from Christian’s perspective published in 2015, the obsession is even more evident. He fantasizes about her “thin” complexion and her “delicate” features, but spends much of her relationship insisting that he eat or telling her that he doesn’t eat enough. Both Marianne in normal people like Frances in Conversations with Friends they seem to have undiagnosed eating disorders: Marianne has a “little” appetite all summer and vaguely notices one day that she hasn’t eaten breakfast or lunch. Frances has a hard time writing poetry after eating toast and then, without having eaten a proper meal in days, she produces some of her best work.
Although these young women are portrayed as unusually intellectual (their authors often refer to their love of Austen, Hardy, and Brontë books as proof of this, along with their romantic tendencies), they are astonishingly inarticulate. “I tend to write characters who are more or less as eloquent and insightful as I am about what they think and feel,” Rooney told The Associated Press. new yorker in 2019. “In other words, they are sometimes perceptive but more commonly they are unable to describe or explain what is going on in their lives.”
She wasn’t kidding. Marianne and Connell break up over the most mundane misunderstanding possible (she assumes he’s leaving her when she was really going to ask if she could spend the summer vacation at her house). Similarly, Edward and Bella break up in the second book because he wants to protect her from her, only she ends up having suicidal thoughts because she’s convinced that he realized she’s not worthy of him. Frances and Nick’s first proper meeting in Conversations with Friends it’s mostly about apologizing to each other for saying something “stupid,” even though they were never told that was the case.
Some fans have found the themes in Rooney’s work so ridiculous that they have parodied them on social media. “Thin way I sadly and hotly forgot to eat for seven days and only realized when I fell in front of Trinity College and everyone was worried about me,” Twitter user @corsie101 wrote on her blog. 2020 viral tweet . “Then a horrible man fed me something and we had sex. He felt good and bad”. On YouTube, a sketch of The Lazy Susan Show parodies a Lana Del Rey song, with a group of girls singing: “Being tired is a lifestyle.” But most of the time, you can get a good laugh reading the original. “I realized that my life would be full of mundane physical suffering and that there was nothing special about it,” Frances thinks. “Suffering would not make me special, and pretending not to suffer would not make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform suffering into something useful.” And yet here we are, suffering along with her.